The Saints head into training camp next week bolstered by a strong session of OTA’s earlier this summer, when every single player showed up. It was the first time in Sean Payton’s NFL career that he saw 100% participation for optional training.
As helpful as that period was, Payton is ready to see his players in padded action, especially the Black and Gold’s new defense.
The Saints “D” ended last season with the dubious distinction of worst in league history in yards allowed. True, the Spagnuolo system wasn’t clicking, but the evolution of the professional game was also a factor.
“There’s more and more pressure on defenses for a number of reasons. In the last 10 years the rules have changed to make it tougher to defend the pass, plus you’re seeing better quarterback play than we have in a long, long time,” explains Payton.
College quarterbacks are taking to the air more often, and the extra throwing experience is tangibly surfacing in today’s NFL. Rookies are arriving more ready to play than ever, and not just with their arms. Payton looked on helplessly last season as the Saints stumbled to get started against mobile quarterbacks who did a tremendous amount of damage with their feet. The Black and Gold fell early on to RGIII and the Washington Redskins, then to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
Payton is now game-planning for how to compete with these young phenoms who operate out of evolving creative schemes we may see for the foreseeable future.
“The pistol formations and option offenses that we’re seeing are big challenges for defenses. So it goes back and forth in the offseason: you’re studying the teams you play and what you’ll need to defend. We’re going to see Cam Newton twice a year in our conference, and we’ll see it from San Francisco, Washington, Seattle. It’s not going away – it definitely presents unique challenges for the defense,” Payton says.
It also presents opportunity.
“The big question is can the quarterback position stay healthy as a viable runner because within that framework the quarterback is a running back,” Payton says.
That’s the weak point defenses can exploit: the moment Griffin, Newton, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick rely on their motor skills.
“If the quarterback is a runner – that’s your chance to be physical with that position. It’s a position that’s so protected in the pocket, but in that formation, he’s no different than a halfback,” Payton explains.
Part of Payton’s answer for resurrecting the Saints Defense: find the pass rush that rarely revved up last season. Defensively, it’s one of the most coveted skills in the NFL, and according to Payton, one of the hardest positions to fill:
“Elite pass rushers and corners that can cover,” he says.
Payton believes the men for the job have been on the Saints roster for the most part, but that they needed to operate out of a different system to get the job done. Black and Gold fans are hoping that successful system is Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 Defense.